Bringing Saxy Back
The sax solo returns to pop music.
By Jonah WeinerUpdated Monday, May 23, 2011, at 6:50 AM ET
For 36 years, Saturday Night Live has provided sanctuary to a species of musical wildlife that today sits on the endangered list: the saxophone solo. In 1975, jazz whiz David Sanborn's note-gobbling, register-vaulting altissimo ushered in the show's premiere episode, setting the brassy tone for every SNL opening sequence that followed. Since 1985, the SNL house band's lead saxophonist has been Lenny Pickett, who made his name in the venerable horn band Tower of Power. Over the course of Pickett's tenure on the show, the sax, once a pop-music staple, has fallen precipitously out of vogue—everywhere, that is, except SNL.
Last October, though, the show allowed some hunting in the preserve. In a digital short titled "The Curse," Andy Samberg, playing an arrogant businessman, is tormented by Jon Hamm, who—ponytailed, shirtless, and with biceps oiled to the point they're reflective—bursts through walls at inopportune moments and, sax in hand, lays into lustful torrents of lite-jazz honking. When the solos are done, Hamm whips his face toward the camera and, fiery-eyed with passion, intones his character's name: "Sergio!" You'd be tempted to call the joke one-note if it didn't involve such a preposterous number of notes: The sketch wrings four sublimely absurd minutes from the simple idea that blistering saxophone solos have come to sound not merely dated but ridiculous, and not merely ridiculous but hilarious.
I can't help but picture Sergio when I listen to Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)," a song from her 2010 album Teenage Dream. For the most part, the song chugs along pleasantly and, in the context of state-of-the-art pop-rock, unremarkably: crisp beat; summery guitars; big chorus about remembering, and hoping to re-create, a fun night of skinny dipping and table dancing. But just before the 3-minute mark, a saxophone bursts unexpectedly into the mix, Sergio-style, for a flurry of ecstatic screeches. The first time I heard the song, the sax took me entirely by surprise. It was ingenious. Perry's lyrics celebrate a goofy blast from the past, so what better musical corollary to that theme than a sax solo, as goofy as blasts from the past get? The "T.G.I.F." sax part, it turns out, was performed by Lenny Pickett. The caretaker had emerged from the sanctuary to release one of his beasts back into the wild.
With the release of Lady Gaga's new album, Born This Way, what was an anomaly officially becomes a pop trend: The saxophone is repopulating. Two of Born This Way's songs, "Hair" and "Edge of Glory," feature sax playing courtesy of the E Street Band's own Clarence Clemons. "It was wild. I was so excited," Clemons told Rolling Stone in a detailed report on the collaboration. "I'm a Gaga-ite." What unites Gaga's sax songs with Perry's is that both use the instrument as a nostalgia button. Gaga has said she wanted to give the song a "Bruce Springsteen vibe," adding, of "Hair," "it's really interesting, because it's putting saxophone on this really huge electronic record." (In this respect, Perry's and Gaga's sax solos are of a piece with the Black Eyed Peas' hit "The Time," a another bittersweet song that drops a chunk of undigested '80s cheese—an interpolation of Dirty Dancing's "The Time of My Life"—into an otherwise contemporary-sounding track.)
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